The cattle industry is holding its breath as this year’s calving season begins and the industry reacts to conditions battering the national economy.

Skylar Houston of Aristocrat Angus in Platteville sees tough times ahead. The downturn in the nation’s cow herd means there are fewer “factories” to produce calves that put meat on the nation’s dinner tables.

“When you look at the global market, things should be stronger,” Houston said as he prepared to sell some bred heifers at the National Western Stock Show in Denver earlier this week. Good cattle, he said, remain in demand, and U.S. cattle genetics are in high demand in Russia, Mexico and eastern European countries

“I think at this point, all we can do is wait and see,” he said.

Mark Dorsey, an Eaton native who now raises cattle outside the northwest Texas town of Seymour, said drought conditions across Texas into Oklahoma and Kansas are putting a real strain on the industry.

“It’s just been terrible dry. We normally get a couple of inches a month in our part of Texas and so far, we’ve had about 0.7 of an inch the past few months,” he said. He’s had to scramble to find feed for his cattle that normally have a good stand of grass. Even three hurricanes that moved over his part of Texas in the past couple of years haven’t left enough moisture to do any good.

“That tells you the kind of year we’ve had,” he said.

Bill Angell of La Salle is the livestock manager at the National Western. He said private treaty sales at this year’s stock show have been good, “better than last year,” and auctions have been strong, although cattle numbers were down at this year’s show.

“I’ve talked to some people down here in the yards that I haven’t seen for quite awhile, and the mood, overall, has been pretty good. But I think of lot of us are waiting to see what happens this spring, to see what the calf crop is like and if the economy starts to see any improvement,” Angell said earlier this week.

Bill Hammerich, CEO of the Greeley-based Colorado Livestock Association, said he continues to be perplexed by the state of the industry, which is showing red ink from bottom to top.

“The cow-calf guys had some pretty good prices for the last 5-7 years, so hopefully they built some equity. But the cow herd continues to decline and with that, goes the factory,” Hammerich said. Dry
conditions also are starting to
settle into the cattle areas of Colorado, which he said adds to the mix.

“We could slip into another drought here,” Hammerich said, noting he agreed with JBS Swift & Co. spokesman Chandler Keyes, who told the Red Meat Club at the National Western last week that the nation is suburban-driven.

“People are getting out of agriculture, and we are becoming a suburban state,” Hammerich said. The cattle and dairy industry are going through much the same, with fewer people involved in larger operations.

The Colorado dairy industry, he said, has gone from more than 200 operations at the beginning of the 2000s to fewer than 140 presently, while cattle numbers have remained about the same or grown. Cattle feedlots have gone through the same evolution.

“Drive around the country. The farmer-feeders are about all gone. In the next 25 years, agriculture in Colorado is going to get bigger, but with fewer people involved,” he predicted.